Rabbi David Etengoff
Dedicated to the sacred memories of my mother, Miriam Tovah bat Aharon Hakohen, father-in-law, Levi ben Yitzhak, sister-in-law, Ruchama Rivka Sondra bat Yechiel, sister, Shulamit bat Menachem, Chana bat Shmuel, Yehonatan Binyamin ben Mordechai Meir Halevi, Shoshana Elka bat Avraham, Tikvah bat Rivka Perel, Peretz ben Chaim, Chaya Sarah bat Reb Yechezkel Shraga, Shmuel Yosef ben Reuven, the Kedoshim of Har Nof, Pittsburgh, and Jersey City, and the refuah shlaimah of Mordechai HaLevi ben Miriam Tovah, Moshe ben Itta Golda, Yocheved Dafneh bat Dinah Zehavah, Reuven Shmuel ben Leah, Dovid Shmuel ben Chasiyah and the health and safety of our brothers and sisters in Israel and around the world.
If someone were to ask you to list the Hebrew names of the Five Books of the Torah, you would readily respond with Bereishit, Shemot, Bamidbar, Vayikra and Devarim. These, however, are by no means the only names by which these holy seforim are known. Talmud Bavli, Avodah Zarah 25a, calls Sefer Bereishit “Sefer HaYashar,” based upon our righteous Avot (Patriarchs) and Emahot (Matriarchs) whom we find therein. The Ramban (1194-1270) named Sefer Shemot “Sefer HaGeulah” since, in his estimation, the redemption of the Jewish people is its overarching theme. Chazal (our Sages of blessed memory) universally use the term “Torat Kohanim” as an alternate name for Vayikra, as the laws regarding Kohanim comprise most of its content. Our Sages agree, as well, that Sefer Bamidbar should be known as “Chumash Pekudim — the Chumash of Counting,” since it contains two instances wherein Hashem commanded Moshe to take a census of our forebears. Lastly, Talmud Bavli, Megillah 31a, refers to Sefer Devarim as “Mishneh Torah,” a phrase that appears in Sefer Devarim in the context of a king’s obligation to write his own Sefer Torah: “And it will be when he sits upon his royal throne that he will write for himself this Mishneh Torah upon a scroll…” (17:18) Nonetheless, it remains unclear as to why Chazal chose this expression as the name for this portion of the Chamishah Chumshei Torah.
One way to shed light on this problem is to focus on the linguistic similarity between mishneh and mishnah. We see this reflected in the suggestion of my rebbe and mentor, Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik zatzal (1903-1993), that Sefer Devarim is the pivot point between Torah Shebichtav (Written Law) and Torah Sheb’al Peh (Oral Law) and is consequently called Mishneh Torah:
Originally, Sefer Devarim was given as Mishnah, as Torah Sheb’al Peh, the Oral Law. Only later, the last day of Moses’ life, do we read that Moses finished writing the words of this Torah in a scroll, until their very completion (31:24). Sefer Devarim, which to that point had the status of Torah Sheb’al Peh, became incorporated into Torah Shebichtav, the Written Law. The phrase Mishneh Torah therefore means Mishnah (Oral Law) which is also Torah (Written Law). (This and the following quotes, Chumash Mesoras HaRav, Sefer Devarim: with Commentary Based Upon the Teachings of Rabbi Joseph B. Soloveitchik, Dr. Arnold Lustiger, editor, pages 2-3)
According to Rav Soloveitchik, Sefer Devarim is the very beginning of Torah Sheb’al Peh; yet, it is a singular kind of Torah Sheb’al Peh since, for though “it became part of Torah Shebichtav, it did not lose its Torah Sheb’al Peh character.” How is this dual nature and “double sanctity” expressed? In the Rav’s view, the Torah Sheb’al Peh essence of Sefer Devarim is manifested in two crucial ways:
In the first four books of the Torah, G-d addresses the community, while in Sefer Devarim it is Moses who is addressing them. In the first four books, Moses is the medium through which G-d addresses the people: Moses served in the role of the prophet, repeating verbatim what G-d told him. In Devarim, however, Moses is not [acting in the role of] a prophet but a teacher: Moshe Rabbeinu. He imparted bei’ur haTorah, the explanation of the Torah, and thus it is Moses himself who addresses the people.
Rav Soloveitchik suggests that Sefer Devarim is Mishneh Torah precisely because Moshe takes on an entirely new role in this sefer, namely, as teacher of the entire Jewish people. As the Rav said on many other occasions, a navi (prophet) can act in two very different capacities, as the shaliach (messenger) of Hashem or as a talmid chacham (Torah scholar). In the first four seforim of Chamishah Chumshei Torah, Moshe is the navi of Hashem par excellence. In the Mishneh Torah, however, he is the greatest talmid chacham in Jewish history, and he remains Moshe Rabbeinu, the rebbe of Klal Yisrael, forevermore.
The unique nature of Sefer Devarim is now quite clear. It is the only one of the Five Books of the Torah that is simultaneously Torah Shebichtav and Torah Sheb’al Peh. As such, it serves as the crucial bridge between the Tanach and the dynamic world of Rabbinic thought and Halacha. Truly, “Ashreinu mah tov chelkeinu, u’mah nayim goraleinu — We are fortunate, how good is our portion, how pleasant our lot, and how beautiful our heritage.”
Shabbat Shalom, and may Hashem in His great mercy remove the magafah from klal Yisrael and from all the nations of the world. V’chane yihi ratzon.
Past drashot may be found at my blog-website: http://reparashathashavuah.org
They may also be found on http://www.yutorah.org using the search criteria Etengoff and the parasha’s name.
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*** My audio shiurim on the topics of Tefilah and Tanach may be found at: http://tinyurl.com/8hsdpyd
*** I have posted 164 of Rabbi Soloveitchik’s English language audio shiurim (MP3 format) spanning the years 1958-1984. Please click on the highlighted link.
Talmid of Rabbi Soloveitchik zatzal